Thoughtful, iconoclastic and humorous, Gaetano Pesce’s famous designs echo his personality. We interviewed him in his Soho workspace that was filled with objects that come directly from an unhindered imagination, and our conversation with him was similarly unguarded – boy, does he say what he thinks.
He was brought up in Italy, the son of a pianist, a single mother with little money and he was educated by nuns at a convent. He credits this childhood full of female influence for bringing him to the realization that masculine design is, in his words, ‘rigid, abstract and sad’ and leading him towards the feminine sensibilities of elasticity and sensuality that inform his work, the ‘private brain’, he calls it, as opposed to the inflexibility of the masculine, ‘public’ brain. He is passionate about the importance of playfulness, and that is the point at which we started our conversation.
I’ve been reading about you and something I did want to ask you was that design itself is not boring, but talking about design is very boring, I feel. Why is that?
Yes … Why? Because my colleagues are not interesting. [laughs]
Designers will often say playfulness is essential to their work, but in my experience, I have not met many playful designers—they’re workaholics, they take themselves very seriously, and they rarely make jokes. Why is that?
[He gets up and goes over to a bookshelf and brings down a book. He leafs through the pages and shows us … the book’s format is to showcase designer profiles but all the photographs of designers make them look very glum, like enlarged mug shots of criminals]
Why they not taking them less seriously? So why?
They all look so gloomy. Is that what the book is called — ‘Gloomy Portraits of Designers’? Are designers self-conscious people?
I don’t know … [he sounds slightly despairing]
What do you think of playful adults? It’s a hard thing to hold on to when you are an adult.
Yes, what you are asking is very rare. You are [searching for] someone who is intelligent and is able to joke about things … very rare. I think Einstein in the young age was, because when he was old he was not very playful. Wittgenstein … but normal designers are very banal people, very mediocre. [He indicates another ‘gloomy designer portrait’, where the designer is wearing sunglasses. He shrugs] Why?
But that’s an affectation. It’s to be cool.
You cannot be cool just because you have glasses. But why? Because they are stupid.
Well, it seems to me that this playfulness is hanging on to the best part of being a child, to allow yourself to retain that dimension.
Yes, yes, exactly. That is the point. There are people, with education and that, they eliminate the child they have inside, with the time. There are others that keep a double personality. And those are the ones, that they way that do something, they think that it is absolutely normal to do it, and then someone else says ‘What did you do?!’ And they say, ‘What did I do?’ So they allow themselves to do things that nobody else does and that, usually, is the spring of the promise.
This is what interests me about the creative process because it seem to be people who are genuinely creative are not timid or embarrassed about what they do because what they do comes so immediately. They don’t incorporate what others think into the process.
Absolutely. What’s your name?
Lesley, this is one thing. But the other thing is, they don’t care what they do. They do something now, then they go with their curiosity to something else and they accumulate without qualification. There are the other people, most of the people, that as soon as they do something, they capitalize, they do always the same thing … something that was not boring was Louise Bourgeois … there are maybe three or four artists in the world and she is one of them. Artist is a title, if I can say that, that is very rare.
So what do you say you are?
I don’t know. I have a certain curiosity. I am bored very easily, very easily. I am also bored by myself … by the way go to see a beautiful movie called Bucket List.
Oh I saw Bucket List … I thought it was ‘sweet’ film. It’s about aging. Do you have that carpe diem feeling … you don’t have the sense that there’s not enough time to do all the things you want to do.
No. Because I was always in this mental position, that time is always something that is very precious.
But that’s a very western notion, I think.
I don’t know, but me, I am from the west. I’m not Oriental. That is not my problem … but you’re right … but I doubt about those cultures. Because the life, whether it’s the Dalai Lama or Jesus Christ, the life [of those figures] … each piece is very precious.
What about the importance of boredom? It’s kind of a stimulus for you.
Ah … it’s more than a stimulus. It’s telling me something. It’s a sign … that I am starting to repeat [designs].
One thing that I want to know is this: is design fundamentally a form of ‘tidying up’, of bringing order to chaos?
No, no. Design today is an art expression. The potential of design is enormous. If I can make this distinction. Design and art is the same thing but let’s keep the two names … but art … the artist, he do something, he go to the gallery, the gallery show, maybe someone buy and then is finished. But design is much more powerful. You have a creation here, then I call someone who has a company, and if he likes what I do, then they transfer to the factory, the workers, the technology, the material. Then when everything is done, you have the promotion, the advertising, the prizes, the marketing, so it is a huge machine. And this machine is much more related to our time.
What types of people do you enjoy being with?
People with, how do you say? No etiquette.
What do you make of people, who when they find out you are Italian, say ‘I love Italy!’ What do you find yourself wanting to say to them?
Well, my first superficial reaction is pleasure! Because I’m pleased they don’t hate it. But I don’t go deep because most of the people know Italy very superficially. The story of Italy and creativity is very interesting. It is the only natural resource of the country. They are doing things, from what is my experience, that I don’t see other people doing. I worked in China and in China you have to express, you have to say everything very precisely. Maybe the spontaneity goes away. But in Italy, maybe you don’t do sketches, and you say ‘I would like to do this …’ and you see people around you start to give it a form.
Why do you live here in New York?
I live here for the same reason that I was living for 14 years in Paris. Paris is geographically a very important place in Europe and I think that, geographically, New York is a very important place for the world. This city is still what a city is supposed to be – a service. London is less service than New York, Paris is less service than London, for sure Rome is less service than Paris. That is why I live here.
You get things done.